So here’s how the YouTube Symphony Orchestra works: musicians make videos of themselves playing a particular part in a short piece by the composer Tan Dun. They also make a more standard audition video of themselves playing their usual repertoire. They submit their videos by January 28, and the judges pick the winners. Then YouTube creates a mashup where they combine the winning parts into an “online orchestra,” and then the winners are flown to New York to do a live performance at Carnegie Hall in April under veteran conductor Michael Tilson Thomas. (Thomas is no stranger to gimmicks; when he was young, he made a recording of Rhapsody in Blue with him conducting the orchestra but with George Gershwin’s old piano rolls playing the solo part on a pianola. Which, when you think about it, isn’t that different from this YouTube “online orchestra” concept.) YouTube now occupies an important place in the world of music, since it’s the ideal place for musicians to post demos and promotional videos, as well as a place where musicians can cheaply hear and learn from the greats of the past.
The flaw in the concept is that if you mash together a bunch of separately-made recordings of people playing orchestral parts, you don’t actually have an orchestra, you have a mess. That’s why orchestras need conductors, to get everybody to play together and in the same spirit. YouTube is trying to correct for this flaw by having Dun do “personal conductor videos,” waving his baton at you, the musician — but it still presents a problem, not just for the final result but for the judges: do they pick the entries that have the best playing, or the ones that would fit best with the ideal final YouTube mix? Remember, a good orchestra is more than just good musicians; if you put the 100 best players in a room together, but they all play in their own style and don’t really “blend,” then that’s not a good orchestra, just 100 good players.